A classic story of love and friendship, sacrifice and resilience, A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers also just happens to be located in a fantasical world of distant planets, casual space travel and aliens of every variety.
Lovelace is an artificial intelligence (AI) that has been transferred into a humaniod form (a “kit”) by an alien named Pepper. At first confused and disoriented (her previous work had been within the walls of a spaceship) she names herself Sidra. She quickly gains intelligence, but struggles to live in chaotic world without walls.
Jane 23 is an enhanced human bred to work in a factory sorting scrap. Her life is strictly regulated and anything outside of the factory is completely unknown to her. One day an explosion blows a hole in one of the walls and she sees sky for the first time. Consumed by curiosity, she goes back to see it again. Nearly caught by one of the Mothers (robot caretakers) she runs blindly, is chased by wild animals and is almost caught until a small shuttle in the massive scrap pile opens a door and helps her escape. The shuttle is run by Owl, an AI that lives in the ship.
Many years later Jane, with Owl’s help, escapes the planet and arrives in Port Cortisol, a busy international space port where she changes her name to Pepper and blends into the world around her. However she is haunted by the loss of the shuttle and her beloved Owl who had raised her as a true mother would and for whom she is always searching.
I would categorize this as a “cozy sci-fi”. There are no space battles or massive alien invasions wiping out civilizations. Bad things happen – witness the factory planet of enslaved girls – but there is a lot of good too. Many diverse aliens with many diverse forms co-exist, mostly peacefully and respectfully. These stories quickly connect in interesting and satisfying ways. Friendships are formed, adventures are shared and the line between AI and humanoid blurs. The world building is intricate and well developed but never intrusive. A lovely and heartwarming novel.